In today’s gospel, the Lord Jesus speaks of crosses and crowns. The apostles have only crowns in mind, but the Lord Jesus knows the price of that crown. And so He must teach them and us that crowns—the things that we value most—come only through the Cross.
It may help to remember the context of this gospel. Jesus is making His final journey to Jerusalem. He is on his way to the Cross, having already announced this to His disciples on two occasions. But throughout this final journey they prove unwilling and/or incapable of grasping what He is trying to teach them.
Today’s gospel is a perfect illustration of a common biblical theme known as the “inept response.” This refers to the common pattern in the gospels wherein Jesus presents a profound and important teaching, and within a matter of verses, or sometimes even just a few words, the apostles demonstrate that they have absolutely no understanding of what He just told them.
Today’s gospel illustrates the inept response. You may recall that on the previous two Sundays, the Lord gave two critically important teachings. Two weeks ago he stood a young child in their midst and spoke of the child as being truly great. He also warned that we must be able to receive the kingdom of God like a little child. Last week, He warned of the pernicious effects of wealth and spoke about how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of Heaven.
And yet as this gospel opens, on very heels of those teachings, James, John, and later all the apostles wish honors upon themselves. They want seats at the head of the table, high offices in the Kingdom, which they still conceive of in very worldly terms. Never mind that Jesus has taught them that the place of honor is not at the head of the table or even at the foot of the table; the honor is upon those who wait on tables.
And thus we see here the inept response. The apostles (and we) just don’t get it. No matter how clear Jesus is, no matter how often he repeats Himself, we just don’t get it.
Let’s look at this gospel in three specific stages.
I. Misplaced Priorities – The Gospel opens with James and John approaching the Lord with an inept question, even a demand. “Grant that in your glory, we may sit, one at your right, and the other at your left.”
As we have already seen, this is a misplaced priority. Their understanding of the place of honor is worldly. Further, they want to move right to the head of the table. They want the Lord to grant them this honor. Even in a worldly way of thinking, places of honor must usually be earned. While some are born into royalty, most attain leadership and honors only after years of effort. Thus, even from a worldly point of view, James and John are being utterly bold, exhibiting little understanding that prior to honors comes labor, comes the earning of those honors. Their priorities are misplaced. They want the crown but without the Cross.
II. Major Price– The Lord Jesus replies to them, “You do not know what you are asking! Can you drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”
Was Jesus astonished, was He amused, or was He sad? It is not easy to say. But the bottom line is clear: they had absolutely no idea what they were asking. And neither do we. So often we want blessings, honors, or seats in high places. But we give little thought to the crosses that are necessary both to get there and to stay there.
Those who finally do attain leadership often know what a cross it is. It can be lonely; there are many pressures; often there are many long hours and the heavy weight of responsibility. True leadership has its perks, but it is hard. Most leaders know also the consistent sting of criticism and isolation.
There is an old joke among bishops that goes something like this: “When a man becomes a bishop, two things are certain: he will never again have a bad meal, and he will never again hear the truth.” Leaders in many other walks of life know something very similar.
And thus the Lord Jesus wonders if James and John have any idea what they are really talking about, what they are really asking for. His question is also poignant, for He has been trying to teach them of the passion, the pain, the crucifixion that awaits Him, and which even He, the Lord of glory, must endure before entering into His glory. No, not only do they not know what they are asking, they just don’t get it.
And this must make the Lord very sad. Sometimes we underestimate the kind of suffering the Lord endured long before the garden of Gethsemane that fateful night, when the sufferings of His passion began in earnest. Prior to that evening, the Lord endured a kind of death by a thousand cuts: enemies trying to trap Him, crowds wanting medical miracles but no true healing, strident and judgmental Pharisees and other religious leaders, ridicule, and disciples who walked away from Him as he taught about the Eucharist. And even the Twelve, to whom He looked for friendship, seemed completely disconnected from what He was trying to teach them. He also knew that one would betray Him, another deny Him, and all but one would abandon Him, never making it to the foot of the Cross. Oh, the grief that they gave the Lord!
And, oh, the grief that we continue to offer up! How we continue to offend His external glory and be difficult cases for Him! How easy it is for us to be hardheaded and stubborn, to have necks of iron and foreheads of brass! No, we shouldn’t be so quick to scorn the apostles because we do the very same things.
The Lord can only remind them and us of the monumental price, the true cost. No Cross, no crown! Ultimately, Heaven costs everything, for we must leave this world behind to reach Heaven. The Easter Sunday of glory, whether in this world or in the world to come, is accessed only by a journey through Good Friday.
It is a major price, but it is a price that James and John seem to dismiss. They simply state, categorically, that they are able to drink the cup that the Lord drinks and to be baptized into His death. But they have no idea what they’re talking about, and neither do most of us.
III. Medicinal Prescription – The other apostles join in the inept response by becoming indignant that James and John are trying to get special dibs on the seats of honor. Their indignity simply shows that they also have no idea of anything that the Lord is talking about.
So the Lord tries to bring the big picture of the Cross more down to earth. He tries to make it plain. He says that the greatest in the kingdom is the servant of all, indeed, the slave of all. Is this straightforward enough? It is not those who sit at the head of the table, even those who sit at the foot of the table, nor at any place at the table who are the greatest; the greatest are those who wait on the table, who serve.
Do they get it? Probably not, and neither do we. It takes most of us a lifetime before we finally get it through our thick skulls that the point in life is not to have the corner office with the view. We have everything upside down, exactly backwards. We are not rich in what matters to God. We think of bank accounts, prestigious addresses, the square footage of our homes, big salaries, and impressive titles—not service.
We may be on our death beds before we finally realize that the greatest people in our lives are those with the ministry of care, those who feed us, perhaps change our bandages and give us basic care.
Like the apostles, we can be so foolish. At the end of the day, and at our final judgment, God will not care about the square footage of our house, our titles, or our worldly honors. What will capture His notice is the times when we served, when we gave a cup of cold water to the thirsty or food to the hungry, when we instructed the ignorant, prayed for the dying, or cared for needs of the poor. He will look for the calluses and the wounds of our service. He will listen for our proclamation of His kingdom. And He will tell us that what we did for the least of our brothers, we did for Him.
Don’t miss the point of this gospel. There is no crown without the Cross. In the Kingdom, honors and crowns are reserved for those who serve, who take up the cross of washing the feet of others, of going to the lowest of places.
In today’s gospel, the Lord speaks of crosses and crowns, and in that specific order. We will not, we cannot, gain any crown in His kingdom without being baptized into His death, into His Cross, into the humble servitude of dying for others in loving service.
Today’s gospel reading invites us to wrestle with fundamental, essential, and focal questions, “What does heaven cost?” and “Am I willing to pay it?”
I. Problematic Pondering – A man asks Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Though his question is a good one, it is problematic because he couches it in terms of his own personal power and achievement. He wonders what he himself must do to attain eternal life.
The problem is, none of us has the holiness, the spiritual wealth, or the power to attain Heaven based merely on what we do. The kind of righteousness we need can come only from God. The misguided question of the rich man betrays two common misunderstandings that people bring to the question of salvation and the need for redemption.
The first misunderstanding is rooted in a minimizing of how serious our condition is. We tend to think that we’re basically in good shape; perhaps we have a few flaws, but basically we mean well and are decent people. We suspect that a few sacraments, occasional prayers, and some spiritual push-ups will be sufficient. But any look to the Crucifix will belie our tendency to minimize. If it took the horrible death of the Son of God to rescue me, then my condition must be worse than I, with my darkened intellect, think.
Jesus once told the parable of a man who owed a huge debt—10,000 talents (cf Mt 18:24). The amount is so large as to be almost unimaginable. This man represents us. No man with such a debt is going to be able to work a little overtime or get a part-time job to pay it off. 10,000 talents is beyond the national debt. Do you get the point? We’re in trouble; we have absolutely no ability to rescue ourselves.
A second misunderstanding is that we tend to intellectualize and minimize what the law of God actually requires. Asking, “What must I do?” rather than “What must I become?” bespeaks a law-based approach that wants a manageable list of things to do in order to be saved, rather than an open-ended relationship with God. “Okay, so I’m not supposed to kill anyone. No problem, I don’t like the sight of blood anyway. I’ve got this commandment down!” But this thinking minimizes the commandment and what it is wholeheartedly asking of us. This point will be developed more fully below.
These two misunderstandings seem to undergird the problematic nature of the rich man’s question. In order to engage the man further, Jesus in effect plays along with the premise. And this leads us to the second point.
II. Playful Prescription – Jesus decides to engage the man’s premise, saying to him, You know the commandments: You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and your mother.
Jesus is being playful here in the sense that He continues with the flawed premise of the man: that he can attain to Heaven by something he does.
It is interesting to ponder why Jesus quotes only the Second Table of the Law, the part pertaining to our love of neighbor, omitting reference to the First Table of the Law, the commandments pertaining to the love of God. Perhaps it is because the Lord recognizes that the man does love God, for he is seeking the Kingdom of Heaven and how to enter into it. Thus, the Lord focuses on the Second Table of the Law, which is in evidence in this man’s life, at least in this interaction with the Lord. Further, as Scripture says elsewhere, “How can you say you love God whom you do not see, if you do not love your neighbor whom you do see?” (1 John 4:20). Hence, the Second Table of the Law, fleshes out the First Table of the Law.
Now, mind you, the Lord is not affirming here that the keeping of the commandments can save us or justify us. Even if we consider ourselves blameless, Scripture says, the just man sins seven times a day (Prov 24:16). We can affirm with Isaiah that, I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips (Is 6:5). And we must say with Paul, I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died for no purpose (Gal 2:21).
While it is true that the law gives us a necessary and clear frame of reference for what pleases God, its summons “Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev 19:22) is not attainable through mere human effort unaided by grace. Jesus makes it clear that when God says “Be holy” He does not have in mind any mere human holiness, for Jesus says, “Be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
Thus Jesus is drawing out the problematic premise of the man. But as we next see, the rich man doesn’t take the hint.
III. Perceived Perfection – Strangely—and humorously to our mind—the man boldly says, Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth.
Notice that his perfection is perceived; simply noting it in himself does not mean he actually has it in himself. Having heard Jesus quote the Second Table of the Law, he announces that he has observed all of these from his youth!
To be fair, his self-analysis was not uncommon for a Jewish man of his time. The Jewish people had a great reverence for the Law, a beautiful thing in itself. But they tended to understand it a fairly legalistic and perfunctory sense.
For example, in a conversation with Jesus, a scribe of the law asks Him, “And who is my neighbor:” (LK 10:29) It’s as if he is saying, “If I have to love my neighbor, and I acknowledge my duty to do so, how can I define ‘neighbor’ so that this is manageable?” In other words, I recognize that I have limits. If justice comes to the law, then the law must have limits, defined in such a way that the keeping of the law remains within my power.
Jesus sets aside such thinking in the Sermon on the Mount, (Matt 5-7), in which He calls for the law to be observed not in a minimalistic sense, but in a way that fills it to the full. Jesus says that it is not enough not to kill; we must also reject anything that ultimately leads to killing or wishing people were dead. The commandment not to kill requires not only that we not take life, but also that we banish from our heart and mind, by God’s grace, hateful anger, retribution, and revenge. The commandment not to commit adultery requires not merely that we avoid breaking our marital vows, but also that, by God’s grace, we banish from our heart and mind any lustful, impure, and unrighteous sexual thoughts.
Hence, the commandments and precepts of the law cannot, and should not, be understood in a minimalistic way. Jesus sets aside the usual manner of the people of His day to reduce the law to something manageable and then declare that they have kept it. God seeks more than perfunctory observance. His grace desires to accomplish within us wholehearted observance. We need grace in order to be saved, in order to qualify for anything that God calls holy.
So Jesus sets aside the rich man’s claims of righteousness and is now is ready to address the question, “What does Heaven cost?”
IV. Pricey Prescription – Yes, what does Heaven cost? The answer is, everything! Jesus, looking at the man with love, says to him, You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.
Ultimately, what Heaven costs is to leave this world and everything in it, to go and possess God and Heaven. To have Heaven, we must set aside this world; not only its life, but its pomp, its ephemeral glories, and its passing pleasures. You want heaven? Then you gotta leave here!
And though we know this, we often live in a way that seeks to postpone the inevitable and to ignore the joke that this world is ultimately playing on us. The world says, “You can have it all!” Yes, and then you die and lose everything. But we like to postpone facing that. We like to pretend that perhaps it ain’t necessarily so. We’re like the gambler who goes to the casino thinking he will be the exception to the general rule. But in the end, the house always wins. You can’t cheat life; whatever we have when we die, whatever we claim to have won, we lose.
In the end, there is only one way to attain the things of lasting value. Only what you do for Christ will last. The Lord says “Store up for yourselves treasure in heaven, that neither rust nor moths can corrode, nor thieves break in and steal” (Lk 12:33).
The Lord says that being generous to the needy and poor is a way of storing up treasure in Heaven. Sadly, most of us aren’t buying that, thinking that clinging to our “treasure” here is a way of keeping it. It isn’t. Whatever we have here is slipping through our fingers like so much sand. The only way to keep it unto life eternal is to give it away to the needy, to the poor, and to allow it to advance the kingdom of Heaven and its values.
Otherwise, wealth is not only not helpful it is actually harmful. There are many texts in the Scriptures that speak of the danger and the harm of wealth, how it compromises our souls and endangers our salvation:
1. Mk 10:23-25 “Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
2. 1 Tim 6:7 “for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world; 8 but if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs.
3. Luke 16:13 “No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
4. Luke 6:24-25 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.”
5. Mat 19:30 “But many that are first will be last, and the last first.”
6. James 2:5 “Listen, my beloved brethren. Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him?”
Thus, while the Lord’s claim that Heaven costs everything bewilders us, we cannot fail to see that it is true and that the world’s claims on us are rooted in a lie, in false declarations that somehow we can be secure in the passing glories the world. Yes, and then you die—end of glory. But because we like the lie, we entertain it. But in the end, we give everything back, because it was never ours to begin with, it only seemed that way.
How foolish we are, how blind! And speaking of blindness, note that the Lord looked at the man with love, yet the man went away sad. That look of love from the Lord never reached his soul. If it had, the result would surely have been different.
And this leads us to the final point.
V. Powerful Possibility – So shocking is this teaching that even the apostles, who had in fact left everything to follow the Lord, are shocked by it. They see, and are in touch with, how deep this wound is in the human heart, how deep our delusion that the world and its goods can satisfy us. They see and know how strong and numerous are the hooks that this world has in us. Thus, they cry out, “Then who can be saved?” And Jesus responds, “For man it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God.”
Thus, in the end, salvation must be God’s work. He alone can take these tortured hearts of ours, so rooted in passing things, and make them willing to forsake all things for the kingdom of Heaven. Only God can take our disordered love and direct it to its proper end: the love rooted in God and the things awaiting us in Heaven. Only God can remove our obsession with the Titanic and place us squarely in the Noah’s Ark that is the Church, the Barque of Peter.
Yes, God can give us a new heart, a properly ordered heart, a heart that desires first and foremost God’s love, a heart that can say, “You, O Lord, are enough,” a heart that can say, “I gratefully receive, Lord, what you give me, and I covet nothing more. Thank you, Lord. It is enough. You are enough.”
Don’t miss the look of love that Jesus gave the young man, the look that He gives you. In the end only a greater love, God’s love received, can replace the disordered love we have for this world.
St. Augustine says, Such, O my soul, are the miseries that attend on riches. They are gained with toil and kept with fear. They are enjoyed with danger, and lost with grief. It is hard to be saved if we have them; and impossible if we love them; and scarcely can we have them, but that we shall love them inordinately. Teach us, O Lord, this difficult lesson: to manage conscientiously the goods we possess and not covetously desire more than you give to us (Letter 203).
I prayed, and prudence was given me;
I pleaded, and the spirit of wisdom came to me.
I preferred her to scepter and throne,
and deemed riches nothing in comparison with her,
nor did I liken any priceless gem to her;
because all gold, in view of her, is a little sand,
and before her, silver is to be accounted mire.
Beyond health and comeliness I loved her,
and I chose to have her rather than the light,
because the splendor of her never yields to sleep.
Yet all good things together came to me in her company,
and countless riches at her hands (Wisdom 7:7-1).
Both today’s first reading and the gospel speak to us of the miracle of marriage. If your marriage is working even reasonably well, it is a miracle! We live in an age that is poisonous to marriage. Many people look for marriage to be ideal, and if there is any ordeal, they want a new deal. Our culture says, if it doesn’t work out, bail out. Thus, successful marriages today are a miracle. But marriages are also a miracle because they are, ultimately, a work of God.
Today’s readings bring before us some fundamental teachings on marriage. The following homily is not short. But many problems beset Holy Matrimony today and the vision of God must be set forth clearly and thoroughly. Let’s look at today’s gospel in five stages.
I Rejection – The gospel opens with the Pharisees approaching Jesus and asking, somewhat rhetorically, “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?” Jesus, aware of their hypocrisy (they do not really want an answer from Him on which to base their lives), asks them in return, “What did Moses command you?” They gleefully respond, in essence, that Moses permitted a husband to divorce his wife as long as he “filled out the paperwork.”
But Jesus will have none of it, telling them that Moses only permitted this very regrettable thing called “divorce” because of their hardened hearts.
Among the rabbis of Jesus’ time, there was the belief that this seemingly lax provision permitting divorce resulted because Moses had reasoned that if he were to say to the men of his day that marriage was until death then some of them might very well have arranged for the death of their wives. So, in order to prevent homicide, Moses permitted the lesser evil of divorce. But it was still an evil and still something deeply regrettable. God Himself says in the book of Malachi,
And this again you do. You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering … You ask, “Why does he not?” Because the Lord is witness to the covenant between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. Has not the one God made and sustained for us the spirit of life? And what does he desire? Godly offspring. So take heed to yourselves, and let none be faithless to the wife of his youth. For I hate divorce, says the Lord, the God of Israel, and covering one’s garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. Yes … take heed to yourselves, and do not be faithless” (Malachi 2:13–16).
Thus, in the opening lines of today’s gospel, Jesus spends time highlighting how the Pharisees and many other men of His time have rejected God’s fundamental teaching on marriage. Jesus is about to reiterate that teaching. For now, though, just note the rejection evidenced in the question of the Pharisees, a rejection that Jesus ascribes to hearts that have become hardened by sin, lack of forgiveness, and rejection of God’s plan.
God hates divorce not only because it intrinsically rejects what He has set forth, but also because it is symptomatic of human hardness and sinfulness.
II. Restoration– Jesus, having encountered their hardened hearts, announces a restoration, a return to God’s original plan for marriage. The Lord quotes the Book of Genesis, saying,
But from the beginning of creation God made them male and female. And for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother, and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate.
Note that Jesus begins with the phrase, “but from the beginning of creation.” In other words, anything that may have happened in the aftermath of Original Sin, any compromises or arrangements that have emerged during the reign of sin, are now to be done away with in the reign of grace that will come as the result of Jesus’ saving death and resurrection.
On account of the grace that will be bestowed, we are now able, and expected, to return to God’s original plan for marriage: one man and one woman in a lifelong, stable relationship that is fruitful, bringing forth godly children for God and His kingdom. This is God’s plan, a plan that has no room for divorce, contraception, or anything other than fruitful, faithful, stable love.
In today’s Western culture there have been many attempts to redefine God’s original and perfect plan for marriage, substituting something erroneous, something humanly defined. And while current endeavors to redefine marriage to include same-sex unions are a particularly egregious example, they are not the first or only way in which God’s plan for marriage has been attacked:
The first attempts happened in the 1950s, when divorce began to occur among celebrities in Hollywood (e.g., Ingrid Bergman, followed by many others). Many Americans, who seem to love and admire their Hollywood stars, began to justify divorce. “Don’t people deserve to be happy?” became the refrain. And thus marriage, which up to that point had as its essential focus what was best for children, began, subtly but clearly, to be centered on what was best for adults. The happiness of the adults, rather than the well-being of the children, began to take precedence in most people’s thinking about marriage.
During the 1950s and 1960s pressure began to build to make divorce easier. Until the late 1960s, divorces had been legally difficult to obtain in America; wealthier people often went to Mexico in order to secure them. In 1969, California Governor Ronald Reagan signed the first “no-fault” divorce law, making divorce a fairly easy thing to obtain. Within ten years, most of the fifty states had similar laws. As a result, divorce rates skyrocketed.
This was the first redefinition of marriage. No longer was a man to leave his father and mother and “cling to his wife.” Now, at the first sign of trouble, men and women could just sever their marriage vows. But this is in direct contradiction to God’s plan, which tells them to cling to each other. Thus we engaged in what amounts to a redefinition of marriage.
The second redefinition of marriage occurred when the contraceptive mentality seized America. It began in the late 1950s and continues to this day. Though God said to the first couple, Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth … (Genesis 1:28), children have become more of a way of “accessorizing” a marriage rather than an integral part and an expected fruit. Children are no longer seen as an essential purpose of marriage, but only an optional outcome based on the wishes of the adults. This, too, is a redefinition of marriage; it is in direct contradiction to God’s instruction to “be fruitful and multiply.” The happiness and will of the adults is now preeminent; children, rather than being an essential fruit, are only a possible outcome.
The third redefinition of marriage, the current rage, is the attempt to extend it to include same-sex unions. The absurdity of this proposal flows from the sinful conclusions of the first two redefinitions, which in effect state that marriage is simply about two adults being happy and doing whatever pleases them.
And if that is the case, there seems little basis in most people’s mind to protest same-sex couples getting “married,” or, frankly, any number of adults in any combination of sexes, getting “married.” (Polygamy and/or polyandry are surely coming next.)
We in the heterosexual community have misbehaved for over fifty year now, redefining essential aspects of marriage. And the latest absurdity—and it is an absurdity—of gay marriage flows from this flawed and sinful redefinition. We have sown the wind; now we are reaping the whirlwind.
In the end, Jesus will have none of this. He rejects the attempts of the men of His time to redefine marriage. And He, through His Church, His living voice in the world today, also rejects the sinful and absurd redefinitions that we in our culture propose, be it divorce, contraception, or homosexual “marriage.”
God has set forth that a man should leave his father and mother and cling to his wife, and that the two of them become one flesh. In making a suitable partner for Adam, God created Eve, not Steve. And hence homosexual unions are excluded. A man is not a suitable partner for a man; a woman is not a suitable partner for a woman. Further, in making a suitable partner for Adam, God did not make Eve and Ellen and Jane and Sue and Beth. Hence, polygamy, though mentioned and tolerated for a time in the Bible (but always a source of trouble) is also not part of God’s plan.
God intends one man, for one woman, in a relationship of clinging; that is, in a stable relationship that bears the fruit of godly offspring.
This is the Lord’s plan; the Lord Jesus does not entertain any notion from the people of His day that will alter or compromise His original design for marriage. He thus announces a restoration of God’s original plan for marriage, as set forth in the book of Genesis.
III. Reality – As is true today, Jesus’ reassertion of traditional, biblical marriage was met with controversy. In Matthew’s account, many of the disciples react with disdain, saying, If that is a case of a man and his wife, it is better never to marry! (Matt 19:10)
In today’s gospel we see that the disciples are somewhat troubled by what Jesus says and ask Him about it again later. But Jesus does not back down; He even intensifies His language, saying, Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.
There will be no apology from Jesus: divorce and remarriage is adultery. There may have been some in Jesus’ time (and today) who would hold up their divorce papers and say that they have a divorce decree. Jesus implies that He is not impressed with some papers signed by a human judge and is not bound by the decision of some secular authority. What God has joined together, no man must separate. In other words, Jesus once again establishes that once God has in fact joined a couple in Holy Matrimony, the bond which God has effected is to be respected by all, including the couple.
Marriage has a reality beyond what mere humans bring to it or say of it. Marriage is a work of God; it has a reality and an existence that flows from God’s work, not man’s. All of our attempts to redefine, obfuscate, or alter marriage as God has set it forth is sinful and is something that God does not recognize as a reality.
IV. Reemphasis – Now comes an interesting twist, which includes a reminder of one of the most essential purposes of marriage. The gospel text says,
And people were bringing their little children to Jesus that he might touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he became indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”
This is not a new element to the story, neither have we gone into a separate pericope. Rather, Jesus’ remarks about children remind us of the essential reason why marriage is structured the way it is. Why should marriage be between two heterosexuals? Why should it be stable? Why should it include a father and a mother rather than two fathers, or two mothers, or just a mother, or just a father?
The fundamental answer is that the essential work of marriage is to procreate and then raise those children! Since children remain marriage’s most fundamental fruit, it makes sense that marriage should be structured based on what is best for them. And the fact is, children are best raised in a stable, lasting environment in which their parents have committed to one another in mutual support and partnership in raising them. Further, it makes sense psychologically that a child should be receiving influence from both father and mother, the male parent and the female parent. There are things that a father can teach a child that a mother cannot; there are things that a mother can teach a child that a father cannot. Psycho-social development is best achieved in the environment that God and nature have set forth: every child growing up with both a father and a mother; a male and a female influence.
Anything else amounts to something that is less than ideal. To the degree that we intentionally impose the less-than-ideal on children, we are guilty of doing them an injustice. Bringing children into the world prior to marriage or apart from it, such that they will be raised in a single-parent home, is an injustice. It is an even greater injustice that children conceived under these promiscuous circumstances are far more likely to be aborted. To kill a child through abortion is a horrific injustice; it is also an injustice to raise a child apart from a marriage situation.
This preference for stable, lasting, heterosexual unions clearly excludes homosexual ones. Same-sex “parents” are far from ideal for a child. To raise a child in such circumstances intentionally is an injustice, for it is to subject the child to that which is unnatural and far from ideal.
Catholics have every obligation both to uphold and insist upon traditional marriage as what is right and just, not only because it is God’s plan, but because it is clearly what is best for children. And marriage is fundamentally about children. It is not simply religious sensibility that should lead us to this position; it is a position deeply rooted in natural law, common sense, and what is best for children.
Traditional marriage should be encouraged in every way. Becoming more “fuzzy” about what marriage is, or “defining it down” does not help our culture to esteem traditional marriage. Traditional marriage has pride of place because it is focused on raising the next generation and is critical to the essential functioning of our society.
There is much talk today about the rights of people to do as they please. So-called gay “marriage” is presented within this framework. But, sadly, many who discuss rights only refer to the rights of adults; they seem to care less about what is really best for children. What is good and right for children needs to have a much higher priority in our culture today than it currently does.
Jesus reemphasizes the teaching on marriage by pointing to the young children before them and telling the disciples not to hinder the children. One of the clearest ways we hinder children from finding their way to God and to His kingdom is with our own bad behavior: promiscuous sexual acts (endangering children through abortion or single-parent households), divorce (placing children in divided situations and saddling them with confused loyalties), and insistence on adult rights over what is best for children. To emphasize all of this bad behavior, Jesus points out the young children to us and says, “Do not hinder them.” Our bad behavior does hinder them.
IV. Reassurance – To be sure, this teaching about marriage is to some degree “heavy weather.” Indeed, many in our culture have tried, and failed, to attain to the vision of marriage that the Lord teaches. There are complicated reasons, too many to note here, why so many people struggle to live this teaching today.
But whatever our own failures have been, we need to go to the Lord with a childlike trust, a trust that cries out for help. Thus, Jesus says at the conclusion of today’s gospel, Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.
Children often feel overwhelmed, but in the midst of that, they run to their parents and seek help. It is in this spirit that the Lord asked us to receive this teaching. Indeed, many may well have to run to God and say “Abba, God, I don’t know how to live this teaching. My marriage is in ruins, and I don’t know how to save it. I’ve tried, but my spouse is unwilling. I can’t go back and undo what I did years ago.”
But note how the Lord embraces the child in this gospel. He is willing to embrace us as well, in our failures and our difficulties. If we have failed, we should be like a young child and run to the Father. What we should most avoid is being relentlessly adult-like, digging in our heels and saying, “God is unreasonable; the Gospel is unreasonable!”
In the end, only God can accomplish strong marriages and strong families for us. We must run to Him as a Father and seek His help. If we have failed, we must not fail to tell the next generation what God teaches, even if we have not been able to live it perfectly.
God’s plan still remains His plan for everyone, whatever our personal failings. We have every obligation to run to Him, trust Him, and ask for His help. But even in the midst of our own personal failures, we can and must announce and celebrate the truth to others. In the end, God does not give us His teaching in order to burden us, or to accuse us, but rather to bless us. Our assurance must be in His mercy and His ability to write straight, even with the crooked lines of our lives.
If we in this generation have failed, and many of us have failed, we must still announce God’s plan for marriage to the next generation. We must not cease to hand on God’s perfect plan.
The gospel today amounts to a summons to faith by Jesus. In particular, He is summoning us to faith in Him and in the truth He proclaims about His presence in the Holy Eucharist. Last week’s gospel ended with Jesus declaring that He is the bread that has come down from Heaven. Today’s gospel opens with the Jewish listeners grumbling about Jesus’ claim to have come from Heaven. Throughout the gospel, Jesus stands firm in His call to faith. He teaches them about the necessity of faith, its origins, and its fruits. Let’s learn of what the Lord teaches us in four stages.
I. The Focus of Faith – The gospel opens with the grumbling of the crowds, since Jesus claims to have come from Heaven: The Jews murmured about Jesus because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” and they said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph? Do we not know his father and mother? Then how can he say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”
Their lack of faith is a scandal. It also shifts our focus to the need for faith and yet how difficult it is to have faith. Both the scandal and the difficulty are illustrated in the background to the crowd’s lack of faith.
First, recall that Jesus had just fed over 20,000 people with five loaves and two fishes, and there were still 12 baskets full of leftovers. It was this very miracle that caused many of them to follow Him when He went to the other side of the lake. All the miracles Jesus worked were meant to summon people to faith and to provide evidence for the truth of His words. Jesus said elsewhere, … for the works which the Father has granted me to accomplish, these very works which I am doing, bear me witness that the Father has sent me (John 5:36).
Thus their lack of faith, their grumbling and murmuring, was scandalous. The multiplication of the loaves and fishes was not the first miracle he had worked, nor would it be the last. Recall that he had also
changed water into wine, healed lepers, healed the centurion’s servant, cast out numerous demons, healed the lame, healed the woman with the hemorrhage, raised Jairus’ daughter, cast out blindness in numerous individuals (one of them blind since birth), cured the man with a withered hand, walked on the water, calmed storms at sea, fed 4000, fed 5000, healed the deaf and mute, caused miraculous catches of fish, raised the widow’s son, and raised Lazarus.
So the question is, what are they (we) going to focus on? What Jesus does, or where he’s from? It seems clear that they are more focused on His human origins: where He is from and who His human kin are.
Similarly, many today seem focused on the human dimensions of the Church, or the foibles of believers, or even on their own personal struggles. How many put their focus on what God is doing, or on the many daily miracles of simple existence, or on the many ways that even defeats become victories?
Where your focus? On mere human things? But what if the focus is on God, and that God is worthy? Is faith your focus? We can see why Jesus focuses on faith, because, frankly, we are a hard case and our faith needs to grow.
II. The Font of Faith – Noting their lack of faith, Jesus rebukes them in these words: Stop murmuring among yourselves. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him on the last day. It is written in the prophets: They shall all be taught by God. Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me.
Jesus here teaches two things: that our faith in Him comes from the Father, and that we are a hard case.
First, Jesus teaches that His Father is the source of our faith in Him. Scripture elsewhere teaches this truth.
For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God (Eph 2:8).
This is my beloved son, listen to him (Matt 3:17).
But the testimony which I have is greater than that of John; for the works which the Father has granted me to accomplish, these very works which I am doing, bear me witness that the Father has sent me. 37 And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness to me (John 5:36).
I bear witness to myself, and the Father who sent me bears witness to me (John 8:18).
Here, then, is the central work of the Father: to save us by drawing us to faith in His Son, whom He sent to redeem the world.
But Jesus also teaches that this work of God generally involves dealing with considerable resistance on our part. And this fact is evident in the wording that Jesus uses, namely, that the Father must “draw” us to the Son. The Greek word here is ἑλκύσῃ (helkuse), which means to drag, draw, pull, or persuade; it always implies some kind of resistance from what is being drawn or dragged. For example, this is also the word used in John 21:6 when describing drawing a heavily laden net to shore.
Thus Jesus points to their (our) stubbornness in coming to faith. We are stubborn and stiff-necked, so the Father has to exert effort in order to draw—yes, even drag—us to Jesus.
Yes, we’re a hard case and we have to be “drug.” Someone once said,
I had a drug problem when I was young: I was drug to church on Sunday morning. I was drug to church for weddings and funerals. I was drug to family reunions and community socials no matter the weather. I was drug by my ears when I was disrespectful to adults. I was also drug to the woodshed when I disobeyed my parents, told a lie, brought home a bad report card, did not speak with respect, or spoke ill of the teacher or the preacher. Or if I didn’t put forth my best effort in everything that was asked of me. I was drug to the kitchen sink to have my mouth washed out with soap if I uttered a profane four-letter word. I was drug out to pull weeds in mom’s garden and flower beds and to do my chores. I was drug to the homes of family, friends, and neighbors to help out some poor soul who had no one to mow the yard, repair the clothesline, or chop some firewood. And if my mother had ever known that I took a single dime as a tip for this kindness, she would have drug me back to the wood shed. Those drugs are still in my veins and they affect my behavior in everything I do, say, and think. They are stronger than cocaine, crack, or heroin, and if today’s children had this kind of drug problem, America might be a better place today.
III. The Functioning and Fruit of Faith – Jesus goes on to teach about how faith functions and what its fruit is: Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life.
First, as regards the functioning of faith, the Greek text is more clear than our English translation. The Greek word here for “believes” is πιστεύων (pisteuon), a present, active participle. This construction signifies an ongoing action and is better translated as “He who goes on believing …” or “He who is believing …”
The danger is that we reduce faith to an event or to an act. Thus, some say that they answered an altar call, others point to their baptism. Good. But what is going on now, today? What is prescribed here by the Lord is lasting, ongoing faith. It is a lasting faith because faith is more than an event; it is an ongoing reality. It is more than something you have; it is something you do, daily. It involves leaning on and trusting in God. It is basing our whole life on His Word, the daily obedience of faith.
Scripture says elsewhere of this ongoing necessity for faith,
But you must hold fast to faith, be firmly grounded and steadfast in it. Unshaken in the hope promised you by the gospel you have heard (Col 1:21ff).
Brethren I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and in which you stand firm. You are being saved by it at this very moment provided you hold fast to it as I preached it to you. Otherwise you have believed in vain (1 Cor 15:1).
He who perseveres to the end will be saved (Matt 24:13).
Jesus, having taught of the ongoing quality of faith, also speaks of its fruit, which is “eternal life.” Here, too, we have to move beyond reductionist notions of what is meant by eternal life.
The Christian use of the word “eternal” does not refer only to the length of life but also to its fullness. The Greek word here that is translated as “eternal” is αἰώνιος (aionios–where we get the English word Aeon). And aiṓnios, according the Greek lexicon of Scripture, does not focus on the future per se, but rather on the quality of the age.
Note, too, that the Greek word translated here as “has” is ἔχει (echei) and is a present, indicative, active verb. Thus, it does not refer only to something that we willhave, but something that we now have. So believers live in “eternal life” right now, experiencing this quality of God’s life now, as a present possession. And while we do not now enjoy it fully, as we will in Heaven, we do have it now and it is growing within us.
Thus, Jesus teaches that the believer enjoys the fullness of life, even now, in a growing way, day by day. One day we, too, will enjoy the fullness of life, to the top, in Heaven.
Here then is Jesus’ teaching on the functioning of faith (its ongoing quality) and the fruit of faith (eternal life, i.e., the fullness of life).
IV. The Food of Faith – Having set forth the necessity of faith, Jesus now prepares to turn up the heat a bit and test their faith. Not only has he come from Heaven, but He is Bread that they must eat; and the bread is His flesh. He says to them, Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died, but this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.
Now this final verse points to next week’s Gospel, in which this concept will be developed more fully and graphically. But in effect, having warned them of the necessity of faith, Jesus now points to one of His most essential teachings: the Holy Eucharist, the Sacrament of His Body and Blood.
Without faith, they (we) can neither grasp nor accept this teaching. And, as we shall see next week, most of them turned away from Him and would no longer follow Him, because they could not accept what He was saying. They did not have the faith to trust Him in this matter; they scoffed and left Him. We will discuss this more fully next week as John 6 continues to unfold for us.
But for now let the Lord ask you, “Do you have faith to believe what I teach you on this?” Perhaps we can say, with the centurion, “I do believe; help my unbelief.” Or we can join with the Apostles, who said, “Increase our faith!” Or we can say with St. Thomas Aquinas,
Visus, tactus, gustus in te fallitur (sight, touch, and taste, in thee fail) Sed auditu solo tuto creditur. (But only the hearing is safely believed.) Credo quidquid dixit Dei Filius; (I believe whatever the Son of God says.) Nil hoc verbo veritátis verius. (Nothing is more true than this word of truth.)
But in the end, either we will have faith or we will be famished. Either we will have the faith to approach the Lord’s table or we will go unfed. Jesus says later, Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his Blood, you have no life in you (John 6:53). In other words, we starve spiritually without the faith that brings us to God’s table.
Behold how few come to the Lord’s table in these times, in these days which so lack in faith. It is estimated that only 27% of American Catholics today go to Mass. If we have faith in the Eucharist, how can we stay away? We cannot. To the degree that we believe, we will not miss a Sunday Mass; our devotion to the Lord will increase daily and our experience of the fullness of life (eternal life) will grow.
All of the readings in today’s Mass speak of human desire. The Israelites in the desert are hungry, so are the people by the lakeside with Jesus. And in the Epistle, St. Paul warns of corrupted desires. In all of the readings, God teaches us that our desires are ultimately directed to Him, who alone can truly satisfy us. Why is this? Because our desires are infinite, and no finite world can satisfy them.
Let’s look at what the Lord teaches by focusing especially on the Gospel, but also including insights from the other readings. There are three basic parts to the teaching on desire. The notes that follow are more extensive than I could preach in a Mass. They are really more in the form of an extended Bible Study on this passage.
I. THE HUNGER OF DESIRE –Today’s gospel begins where last week’s left off. To refresh your memory, Jesus had multiplied the loaves and fishes and satisfied the crowd with abundant food, but then slipped away and headed across the lake to Capernaum. Today’s text begins, When the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into boats and came to Capernaum looking for Jesus.
Thus we begin by simply noting the hunger of the people. Allow hunger here to represent all of our desires. Desires, of themselves, are good and God-given. It is the people’s hunger, their desire, that makes them seek Jesus. Further, their desire is very deep and strong; they are willing to journey a significant distance to find Jesus.
As such, desire has something important to teach us. It is easy to see that our desired motivate us. But we should also recognize that they are infinite, unlimited. For no matter how much we get, we always want more. We may experience some momentary satisfaction with certain things like food, but it doesn’t last long. Taken together, our desires are limitless.
This limitless, infinite quality demonstrates God’s existence, for a finite world cannot give what it doesn’t have, namely, infinite longing. Thus, our infinite longings point to God and must come from Him. Our hearts, with all their infinite longings, teach us that we were made for God and will not find rest apart from Him.
Purification is needed. The journey of the people around the lake to find Jesus is good in itself, but as we shall see, their hunger needs purification and a more proper focus. They do not seek Jesus as God, but rather as the “bread king.” They seek mere bread, mere food for their stomachs. But the Lord wants to teach them that all their desires really point higher. And that leads us to the second movement of today’s gospel.
II. THE HEALING OF DESIRE – As we have already noted, desire is good and God-given. But, in our fallen condition, our desires are often unruly, and our darkened minds often misinterpret what our desire is really telling us.
Desires are unruly because we desire many things out of proportion to what we need, and to what is right and good.
Our minds are darkened in that we consistently turn to the finite world in a futile attempt for satisfaction, and, when it fails, we keep thinking that more and more of the finite world will satisfy our infinite longing. This is futile and is the sign of a confused and darkened mind, because the world cannot possibly satisfy us. More on this in a moment.
For now, Jesus must work with these bread-seekers (us) and help them to realize that their desire for bread is about much more than mere food; it is about God. He is the Lord whom they really seek. Let’s observe how He works to heal their desires.
A. The Doctor is in – The text says, And when they found him across the sea they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?” Their question is somewhat gratuitous, since they know exactly when He got there; they are simply trying to strike up a conversation in order to get more bread. As we shall see, Jesus calls them on it. But note this much: they are looking for Jesus and they do call him “Rabbi.” Both these facts are good. Their desire, though imperfectly experienced, has brought them to Jesus, who, as Lord, can now teach them (and us) about what their longing is really telling them. The doctor is in.
B. The Diagnosis – The text says, Jesus answered them and said, “Amen, amen, I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.”In other words, “You are not looking for me because you saw signs and want to believe in me, but because you want your bellies filled.”
And this is our essential problem: we focus on our lower desires, our bodily needs, neglecting our higher, spiritual desires. We have a deep, infinite longing for God, for His love, goodness, beauty, and truth. But instead of seeking these things, we think another hamburger will do the trick. Or if not that, a new car, a new house, a new job, more money, more sex, more power, or more popularity. We think that if we just get enough of all this “stuff” we’ll finally be happy. But we will not; it’s a lie. A finite world cannot possibly satisfy our infinite longing.
In the second reading from today’s Mass, St. Paul warns,I declare and testify in the Lord that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds … that you should put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds (Eph. 4:17, 20-23).
Note St. Paul’s use of the word “futility.” The Greek word is ματαιότης (mataiotes), here meaning unreality, purposelessness, ineffectiveness, a kind of aimlessness due to a lack of purpose or any meaningful end, nonsense because it is transitory and not enduring.
In other words, it is exactly what the Lord is getting at in telling them that their desires are messed up. It is the sign of a darkened mind to pile up finite, earthly goods in a futile attempt to satisfy infinite desires.
St. Paul goes on to say that some of our desires are deceitful. They are so because they bewitch us into thinking that our life is about them, and that if we attend to them only, we will be happy. We will not; this is a deception. Simply getting more food, sex, drink, houses, money, power, etc. will not cut it. These are finite things, while our desires are ultimately infinite.
Thus the doctor, along with his assistant, St. Paul, has made the diagnosis: You and I are seeking bread (not evil in itself) when we should also be seeking Him who is the True Bread of Life. They say to us, in effect, “You seek the consolations of God, but not the God of all consolation. You want good things, but do not seek the giver of every good and perfect gift.”
So we have our diagnosis. Our desires are our out of whack and/or our darkened minds misinterpret the message that our lower desires are really giving us. Next come the directives.
C. The Directives– The Lord gives three essential directives:
1. Fix your focus– Jesus says, Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. The point is that we should attend more to things that endure unto life eternal than to the passing things of this world.
Most of us do just the opposite. The passing world and its demands get all our attention and things like prayer, scripture, sacraments, building our relationship with the Lord, learning His will, and obeying His will, all get short shrift. We attend to “the man” and tell God to “take a number.” It’s kind of dumb, really.
The passing world, a sinking ship, gets all our attention. Calling on the one who can rescue us and learning His saving directives and following them gets little attention. Instead we “rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic,” indulge ourselves on the “lido deck,” and get angry that we don’t have a first class cabin.
The Lord says, “Hey! Fix your focus! That ship is going down. What will you do then? Why obsess about that stuff? Turn to me and listen carefully; I alone can save you.” Fix your focus: worry less about things that perish and focus more on the things that last and can save.
2. Firm Up your Faith– Jesus goes on to say, For on him the Father, God, has set his seal.” So they said to him, “What can we do to accomplish the works of God?” Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.”
Okay, so the ship is going down; the world is perishing. So how do we get saved from it? The answer is faith.
But faith here must be understood as more than just answering a mere altar call or the recitation of a creed. And surely it is more than “lip service.” Faith here is understood as being in a life-giving, transformative relationship with Jesus Christ.
Real faith puts us into a relationship with the Lord that changes the way we walk, that gives us a new mind and heart, new priorities, indeed, a whole new self. To be in a relationship with Christ, through faith, is to be changed by Him. And it is this change, this obedience of faith, this transformation that saves us and gets us ready to meet God.
So the Lord says, “Come to me and firm up your faith.”
3. Find your Food – But as the discussion with them continues, they show themselves to be a stubborn lot. They say, “What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you? What can you do? Our ancestors ate manna in the desert, as it is written: He gave them bread from heaven to eat.”
In effect they are still back to demanding bread. It’s as if to say, “Sure, fine, all that higher stuff is fine, but I want bread for my belly. So give me that and then we’ll talk about all that higher stuff and that bread that endures and does not perish. If you want me to have faith, first give me bread for my belly.”
They’re still more interested in the stuff of a sinking ship.
So Jesus says to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” And in saying this, Jesus is saying, in effect, “Don’t you see that the ancient bread in the wilderness was about GOD? It was not merely food to fill their bellies; it was food to draw them to deeper and saving faith. It was food to strengthen them for the journey to the Promised Land. And so it must be for you: that you understand that even your lower desires are ultimately about God. If mere grain is your food, you are doomed, for food perishes and you along with it. But if God himself is your food, now you can be saved, for I, the Lord and the Bread that endures, will draw you with me to eternal life.”
And in these ways the Lord seeks to heal their desires. But now comes the main point.
III. THE HEART OF DESIRE– So they said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.“
And thus we see that the Lord now makes it plain: I AM your food. I AM the fulfillment of all your desires. I AM the only one who can really fulfill your infinite longings, for I AM the Lord and I AM infinite. Yes, I AM your true bread.
So what does the Lord mean in saying we will never again hunger or thirst? To some extent we must see that Jesus is employing an ancient “Jewish way of speaking,” which looks to the end of things and adopts them as now fully present. There is no time to fully develop this here and describe how it is used elsewhere, but in short, it is the capacity to see things as “already but not yet,” and to begin to live out of the “already” in the here and now.
Thus Jesus is saying, in more modern terms, “To the degree that you enter into a life- changing and transformative life with me, and to the degree that I become your bread, that I become that which satisfies you, your desires will come more and more into line and you will find them being satisfied more and more with each passing day. You will find in your life a satisfaction that a new iWatch could never give, that money, power, sex, possessions, and all other passing goods could never give. And one day, this satisfaction will be full and never pass away when you are with me in heaven.”
Of this I am a witness, for with each passing day in my life of faith with the Lord, I can truly say that I am more and more satisfied. The things of this passing world are of less interest to me and the things of God and Heaven are increasingly the apple of my eye. I have a ways to go, but the Lord has been good to me and His promises are true, for I have tested them in the laboratory of my own life.
The old song is increasingly mine, which says, “I heard my mother say, Give me Jesus. You may have all this world, just give me Jesus.”
In the gospel in the weeks ahead, the Lord Jesus will develop how He is bread for us in more than a metaphorical way. Rather, He is our True Bread in the Eucharist and the Bread He will give is His flesh for the life of the world. Yes, His Body and Blood are our saving food for the journey to the Promised Land.
I am mindful of an old gospel hymn that I’d like to give a Catholic spin. For I have it on the best of authority that when Jesus was speaking to the crowd in today’s gospel, He started to tap his toe and sing this song:
We have in today’s gospel the very familiar miracle of the loaves and the fishes. One is tempted to say, “Oh, that one …” and then tune out. But the gospel today contains a personal appeal from the Lord’s lips to your (my) ears: “Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?”
Immediately, objections begin to pop up in our minds. But let’s be still and allow the Lord to instruct us by applying this Gospel in three stages.
I would like to apply this gospel in such a way as to illustrate our need to evangelize the culture in which we currently live. It is an immense task, one that can overwhelm us, and yet the Lord still bids us to get busy and join him in feeding the multitudes.
I. THE IMAGE THAT IS EXTOLLED – The text says, Jesus went up on the mountain and there he sat down with his disciples. The Jewish feast of Passover was near. Jesus raised his eyes and saw that a large crowd was coming to him.
The text says that Jesus saw a large crowd. I wonder if we do? Generally today when we think of the Church, we think of declining numbers. This is because we tend to think in terms of the number of members. In contrast, Jesus thinks in terms of those who need to be reached. And, as we know well, the number of those who need to be reached IS large! So while it seems clear to us that the gospel is currently “out of season,” we must never forget that everyone is precious to the Lord; He wants to reach all and feed them with His grace, mercy, truth, and love.
So, the image that is extolled is that of need, not of believers and non-believers. Is this how you and I see the world? Jesus sees all the world as a vineyard, as a mission field. He sees all as hungry, no matter how obstinate they are. It is a sad fact that many reject the food we in the Church offer; many even deny that they are hungry. But they are hungry and Jesus is about to ask our help in feeding them. Thus, while we may see opponents to the faith, this text lifts up an image that is rooted in the universal human problem of hunger, physical and spiritual.
II. THE INSUFFICIENCY THAT IS EXPRESSED – The text says, “Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?” Jesus said this to test Philip, because he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fishes; but what good are these for so many?”
There is a human tendency to feel overwhelmed. This is understandable since the task of evangelizing and feeding the world is daunting to say the least.
Yet note that they are NOT without any resources. It may seem insufficient, but it is not nothing.
And so it is for us who may feel overwhelmed by the cultural meltdown taking place before our very eyes. It seems that every number we want to go down is going up, and every number we want to go up is going down. The cultural war seems to be occurring on multiple fronts: family, marriage, sexuality, life issues, religious freedom, schools, church attendance, the rise of secularism and atheism, and the lack of personal responsibility and self-control.
The list could go on and on. It is not difficult to demonstrate that the disrepair in our culture is enormous. The task of evangelizing our culture may seem far more difficult than coming up with two hundred days’ wages.
But note that Jesus says, “Where can WE” get enough to solve the problem. For it is not only up to us, mere mortals, to resolve the grave issues of our day. The Lord asks us to work with Him. Now, it would seem, we have a fighting chance!
III. THE IMMENSITY THAT IS EXPERIENCED – Jesus said, “Have the people recline.” Now there was a great deal of grass in that place. So the men reclined, about five thousand in number. Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were reclining, and also as much of the fish as they wanted. When they had had their fill, he said to his disciples,” Gather the fragments left over, so that nothing will be wasted.” So they collected them, and filled twelve wicker baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves.
By now this story is so familiar that we are not shocked by the outcome. But no matter how many times we hear it, we still do not really accept its astonishing truth.
I can do all things in God who strengthens me (Phil 4:13).
All things are possible to him who believes (Mk 9:23).
For man it is impossible, but not with God, for all things are possible with God (Mk 10:27).
Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness (2 Cor 9:10).
We all know that this world is in an increasingly bad state. The problems seem overwhelming and our resources seem so limited to turn back the tide. What will we ever do with only five loaves and two fishes?
Jesus says, “Bring them to me.”
A journey of a thousand miles begins with just one step. The conversion of the whole world begins with me. As I look the huge problems before me, I (this means you) assess my loaves and fishes:
I work on my own conversion. A holier world has to start with me. If I get holier, the world gets holier.
I look to the poor I can serve, maybe with money, maybe by using my talents to tutor or counsel, maybe just by giving of my time to listen.
I pick up the phone and call a family member who I know is hurting.
I love my spouse and my children.
I spend time raising my children to know the Lord and to seek His kingdom.
I exhort the weak in my own family. With love, I rebuke sin and encourage righteousness.
If I am a priest or religious, I faithfully live my vocation and heroically call others to Christ by teaching and proclaiming the gospel without compromise.
If I am young, I seek to prepare myself devoutly for a vocation to marriage, the priesthood, or religious life.
If I am older, I seek to manifest wisdom and to provide a good example to the young.
If I am elderly, I seek to prepare myself for death devoutly and to display the desire for Heaven.
I pray for this world and attend Mass faithfully, begging God’s mercy on this sin-soaked world.
It is too easy to lament the condition of the world and, like the Apostles, to feel overwhelmed. Jesus says, “Just bring me what you have and let’s get started.” The conversion of the whole world will begin with me, with my meager loaves and fishes.
Jesus will surely multiply them; He will not fail. Already there is renewal evident in the Church, through a faithful remnant willing to bring their loaves and fishes (some of the things mentioned above and more besides). They are bringing them to Jesus and He is multiplying them. Renewal is happening; signs of spring are evident in the Church.
There is an old saying that it is easier to wear slippers than to carpet the whole of the earth. Indeed it is. If it is a converted world that you want, start with yourself. Bring your loaves and fishes to Jesus; bring your slippers and let’s get started. It begins with me.
This song says,
If I can help somebody, as I pass along,
If I can cheer somebody, with a word or song,
If I can show somebody, how they’re traveling wrong,
Then my living shall not be in vain.
If I can do my duty, as a good man ought, If I can bring back beauty, to a world up wrought, If I can spread love’s message, as the Master taught, Then my living shall not be in vain.
The gospel today speaks to us of the priority of personal prayer. You may recall that in last week’s gospel, Jesus sent them out two by two to proclaim the Kingdom. Now they return, eager to report the progress and the graces they encountered.
But as Jesus listens, he urges them (perhaps because they are overjoyed) to come aside and rest awhile, for they have labored long. In so doing, Jesus also teaches us about prayer. Let’s consider four teachings on prayer that are evident in today’s gospel.
I. The Practice of Praise-filled Prayer – The text opens with the disciples gathering with Jesus and joyfully recounting all they experienced on their missionary journey. In a similar text in Luke (10:17), the disciples return filled with joy and rejoice that demons are subject to them (in the power of Jesus).
Thus, the first instinct of the disciples is joyful gratitude before the Lord.
Is your prayer filled with praise and thanksgiving? Are you grateful to God for all He has done? Do you tell God what is happening in your life and give Him thanks for all He has enabled you to do?
Too many people think of prayer only in relation to petition. But praise is also an essential component of prayer. When Jesus began his instruction on prayer, He said, When you pray, say, ‘Our Father, who art in heaven hallowed be thy name’ (Mat 6:9). In other words, “Father your name is holy; you are a great God, a wonderful God; you can do all things and I praise you! Thank you Father; your name is holy and you are holy.”
So praise the Lord. Thank Him for what He is doing and tell Him everything you are experiencing. Scripture says that we were made for the praise of his glory (Eph. 1:16). So praise the Lord in your prayer. Don’t know how? Take a psalm of praise; pray or sing the Gloria from Mass; sing or recite a hymn, but praise Him!
II. The Peace of Personal Prayer – Jesus invites the disciples to come away by themselves to a quiet place and rest for a while. Most people don’t think of their personal prayer as a privileged invitation from the Lord, nor do they think of it as rest.
Yet, consider that the Lord invites us to come aside and spend personal and private time with Him. Most people would relish personal attention from a celebrity or famous person. Why not from the Lord? An old song says, “What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer.”
Note the description of this time as “rest.” Most people think of prayer more as a task than as a time of rest. Yet to pray is to rest, to withdraw from this world for a brief time and enjoy the presence of the Lord. Scripture says, For thus the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel, has said, “In repentance and rest you will be saved. In quietness and trust is your strength” (Is 30:15).
And old hymn says,
Sweet hour of prayer! Sweet hour of prayer! That calls me from a world of care, And bids me at my Father’s throne Make all my wants and wishes known. In seasons of distress and grief, My soul has often found relief, And oft escaped the tempter’s snare, By thy return, sweet hour of prayer!
Learn to think of prayer as quiet time, as rest with the Lord, when He soothes, strengthens, refreshes, and blesses us.
III. The Primacy of Prioritized Prayer– The text tells us that people were coming and going in great numbers seeking the attention of the Lord and the Apostles; they could not even get a moment to eat!
Now there is no doubt that the people had critical needs. They needed to be taught, healed, fed, and cared for in many ways. And yet even in the face of this, Jesus said, in effect, “We have to get away from all this for a while.” He directed the disciples to go off in the boat to a deserted place.
Indeed, one of the few places they could “get away” was out on the water. So out they went, where the crowds could not follow them. They were alone and quiet for just a brief while.
Jesus made prayer a priority. Scripture says of Him, But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed (Luke 5:16). Scripture also speaks of Him rising early to pray (Mk 1:35), praying late into the night (Mt 14:23), praying all night long (Lk 6:12), and praying in the mountains (Matt 14:23) and other deserted places. Yes, Jesus made prayer a priority.
Understanding prayer as rest helps us to understand why prayer must be a priority in our lives. If we are going to engage in the work to which God has called us, we need to be replenished and refreshed daily by spending time with the Lord.
If we were to engage in physical work without ever stopping to rest, we would collapse. The spiritual life has a similar law. Resting with God in prayer fills us with His presence, grace, and strength so that we can be equipped, empowered, and enabled unto the tasks that He has given us.
No one can give or share what he does not have. And if we aren’t praying and experiencing God’s presence, how can we share it? To share grace, we must first receive it. To speak the Word, we must first receive it. To witness to the Lord, we have to know Him.
Jesus often had to hide in order to pray. Sometimes the only quiet place He could find was out on the lake. But Jesus did make time for prayer, and He invites the Apostles and us to do the same, not only despite the busyness of life, but because of it.
A Story: A priest friend of mine said that he once gave spiritual direction to a religious sister back in the 70s. At that time, it was common for people to say “my work is my prayer.” When this priest inquired of the good sister’s prayer life she answered, “Oh, I’m too busy to pray, but that’s OK, my work is my prayer; that’s my spirituality.” And he replied, “Sister, if you’re not praying, you don’t have a spirituality.” He got her to start praying for one hour a day. Some years later, he ran into her at the airport. By now, she had moved on to become a major superior in her order. “How are you doing, Mother,” he asked. “Oh,” she replied, “I am very busy!” He cringed, but then she added, “I’m so busy these days that I have to spend two hours a day praying!”
Now there’s a smart woman! When we’re being foolish we say, “I’m too busy to pray.” When we’re being smart we say, “I’m so busy that I need to pray more.”
Jesus made prayer a priority. Prayer is the rest that strengthens us for the task; it is the refreshment that gives us new vigor and zeal.
IV. The Power of Pious Prayer – The text says that after Jesus spent this time alone with the Apostles on the boat, they reached the other shore. And sure enough, the crowd was there waiting for them. But Jesus and the Apostles had been refreshed and were now well-rested. Jesus, refreshed and renewed, saw the vast crowd and began to teach them at great length.
Prayer has that effect. In drawing close to God, who is love, we are better equipped to love others. Jesus, though He never lacked love for them, models this renewal for us. The text says that upon seeing the crowd, His heart was moved with pity for them.
An aside – The Greek word used is σπλαγχνίζομαι (splagchnizomai), which means “to be moved with compassion.” The English word “pity” often carries with it a condescending tone. But what happens here is that Jesus sees them, loves them, and has compassion for their state. The religious leaders in Jerusalem have largely abandoned them, considering them “the great unwashed.” But Jesus loves them and teaches them at great length.
For us, it often takes many years and lots of prayer to equip our hearts in this way. One of the signs that grace and prayer are having their effect is that our love for others, even for the multitudes, grows deeper, more compassionate, more patient, and more merciful. This takes great prayer and long hours of sitting at the Lord’s feet and learning from Him.
But here is the power that prayer bestows: we should be more fully equipped for our mission, more zealous, and more loving. The rest afforded by prayer rejuvenates our better nature and helps it to grow.
So here are four teachings on prayer. Jesus found time to pray; He made prayer a priority. How about you?
One of the great obstacles to effectively evangelizing is that most Christians lack the requisite freedom and simplicity of life to carry forth the task consistently and coherently. In today’s gospel, the Lord offers some counsel on what is required to evangelize effectively.
As we read a gospel like this, it is tempting to think that it speaks only of specialists such as missionaries, religious, priests, or deacons. But such a presumption forgets that everyone is called to evangelize: clergy to people, parents to children, elders to youngsters, siblings to siblings, friends to friends, neighbors to neighbors.
Thus this gospel is for all of us, and it summons us to a greater freedom that will equip, empower, and enable us to evangelize more effectively. Let’s look at the Lord’s counsels.
I. The Freedom of SUMMONS– The text says Jesus summoned the Twelve and began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over unclean spirits.
It may not be immediately obvious how a summons is freeing, but consider that, to the extent that we know we are called to do something by someone in authority, we are often more courageous and diligent in doing it, even if it is hard. A commanding officer may have to ask his troops to engage in a difficult battle, but because he knows that his own commanders have ordered it and that it is part of a wider strategy, he tries to rally his troops. He speaks not only with his own authority but that of others, and thus he is courageous and his words have weight. And even if his troops protest or seem unenthusiastic, he remains strong because he knows his duty and that he is doing what is right.
Yes, being under a summons is freeing and empowering. And so for us, if we know that the Lord has summoned us and sent us to evangelize (and he surely has (cf Matt 28:19)) we can go forth with courage to rally God’s people and summon them to the Lord’s team. And even when people react poorly we need not be discouraged, for we know we are under the orders of God Himself and that what we speak is right.
As a priest, I am often called upon to speak on topics that some do not want to hear. And yet, to the degree that I know I have called to speak it, I do so with courage, knowing that when the Lord and His Church bid me to address something, I speak not only with my own authority but with that of God. Some may grumble that they don’t want to hear me talk about money, abortion, religious liberty, or homosexual or heterosexual sin. Yet to the degree that I know I AM called to speak on these things, I still do so and do so with courage. Yes, I am summoned. I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! … for God has given me this sacred trust (1 Cor 9:17).
Do you know that you have been summoned? Have you experienced this call? Do you see it as a mandate, as something you have been summoned to do? Priests and deacons need to recognize our call to preach the Word of God unambiguously. We are under orders from the Lord. As Scripture says, In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage–with great patience and careful instruction (2 Tim 4:1-2). But honestly, can any of you who are parents and grandparents not see that you are called to the same for your children? And who of us here can say that any but perhaps the youngest are exempt from the summons to preach, to declare the Word of God?
Knowing and experiencing that you have been summoned is freeing!
II. The Freedom of SIMPLICITY– The text says, He instructed them to take nothing for the journey but a walking stick— no food, no sack, no money in their belts. They were, however, to wear sandals but not a second tunic.
One the most fundamental reasons that people do not evangelize is that we have way too much baggage. What kind of baggage? Consider that our lives are
CLUTTERED – We have too much stuff. And stuff needs attention, maintenance, and money; it takes up space and ties us down. We also have the baggage and clutter of too many commitments. We’re overscheduled and overbooked. We have many wrongful priorities such that we spend too much time worrying about things that don’t matter all that much in the end. And what does matter gets put on hold. Reading Bible stories to your kids? No time for that; we’ve got to get to soccer practice! Yes, our lives are cluttered with the excess baggage of too many distractions. And what is a “dis-traction?” It is something that gets you off track and makes you lose traction in what really matters.
COMPLEX – Most of our lives are so cluttered and choked with excess baggage we don’t even know where to begin to simply it. We don’t know how to break the cycle, how to say no. So we end up carrying all this stuff and are quite enslaved to its demands.
COMPROMISED – All this extra baggage weighs us down and entangles us with the world. Thus, our values are not the values of the gospel. Instead, we are tied down to the world, loyal to it, and invested in its thinking and its ways.
We need to be free to preach the Gospel and to evangelize. So the Lord says, simplify! Too much obsession with money, food, clothes, boxes of stuff, popularity, and fitting in will hinder you.
Think of a runner in a race. He does one thing only and carries nothing extra that would weigh him down. Travelers, too, do not take their whole house with them, only what is necessary. And, in terms of this world, we are just traveling through.
Most of us just have too much stuff. Because of this, we are tied to this world and lack the kind of freedom necessary to witness prophetically to what is beyond this passing world. Ask the Lord to help you gently but persistently simplify your life so that it increasingly becomes about the one thing necessary.
III. The Freedom of STABILITY – The text says, He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave.”
Stability is the freedom to accept what is and to work with it rather than to be constantly looking for something better. It is the freedom to bloom where you are planted, and to use what God actually gives rather waiting for something better.
There’s a real freedom to staying put and developing the deeper relationships that are usually necessary for evangelization to be effective and lasting.
One of the bigger problems with handing on the faith today is that there is very little stability in families, communities, and parishes. When things and people are passing and ephemeral, how can values rooted in lasting things be inculcated?
Preaching the gospel often depends on well-founded relationships, patience, perseverance, and taking the long view of life. Running here and there and living life only on the surface will not cut it. Shallow soil does not sustain taller growth. Only deep roots can do that.
Ask for the freedom to stay put and to be less anxious about the possibility that there may be a better job, a better community, a better deal out there somewhere. There is value in being grateful for what you have and working with that, in setting down deep roots and lasting relationships. This is the deeper and richer soil in which evangelization can happen.
IV. The Freedom of SURETY – The text says, Whatever place does not welcome you or listen to you, leave there and shake the dust off your feet in testimony against them.
Here is one of the greatest freedoms of all: the gift to be free of our obsession with being liked, approved of, and popular. Too often we are overly concerned with being popular. We care too much about what others think of us, at the expense of the truth of the gospel.
In effect, Jesus implies here that rejection will surely happen and when it does, shake it off, let it pass over you. Speak the truth and don’t worry about rejection, expect it! This is a very great freedom.
Too many parents are desperate to have their children like and accept them. They avoid discipline and difficult teachings. It is necessary to be free of this “need.” The Lord can give that to you.
We are not speaking here of becoming sociopaths, caring not one whit what others think. This is not an invitation to be impolite, or to fail to groom ourselves and be presentable. Rather, it is an invitation to be free of our obsession with popularity so that we can shake off the rejection of the gospel that we will inevitably experience. And again, the Lord can give that to us.
V. The Freedom of SUBSTANCE – The text says, So they went off and preached repentance. The Twelve drove out many demons, and they anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.
There is freedom in knowing what to say and what to do. And this freedom flows from the SUBSTANCE. For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Crucified. This is freeing, for we cannot be compelled to change or adapt the message that has already been set for us. There is a freedom in sticking to the message proclaimed once and for all. The world demands compromise, that certain passages of Scripture be modified. But we, who in no way can do this, are free of such compulsion.
Only those who are enslaved to the times and the mentality of this world can be so compelled. But to the degree that we know we are summoned, sent, and given the substance of what to preach, we are free to announce, and free from coercion to compromise.
And substance was “repentance.” As we have noted before, the Greek word μετανοῶσιν (metanoosin) means more than simply to clean up one’s behavior. It means “to come to a new mind,” or “to change one’s thinking.” Hence the evangelizer seeks to appeal to the whole person. It is not only a person’s behavior that is important; it is also how he thinks and what is taking place in the deepest part of his soul.
The Lord seeks to heal the whole person from the inside out. Thus the Apostles and those of us free enough to be true evangelizers are not seeking merely to inform but to transform.
And note how the text describes them as driving out demons and curing the sick. Is this merely some exotic ability of the early Apostles? No. We, too, by this proclamation, drive out the demons of sadness, meaninglessness, ignorance, misplaced priorities, atheism, agnosticism, worldliness, materialism, and so forth. We also bring healing and peace for those accept the power of the Word of God into their lives. These healings are very real. I know them in my own life and have seen them in the lives of others.
Are you free enough to evangelize, to preach the gospel, and to bring healing and peace to others? Are you free enough to be a means of God’s transformative Word?